The term ‘eugenics’ (which means ‘good birth’) was coined by Francis Galton in 1883 to capture the idea that we should use insights from the new science of heredity to improve the welfare of future people (Levine 2017). But as Galton understood the term, eugenics involved both the study of heredity, and the use of this knowledge to by parents to shape their reproductive choices. It is more common now to sharply distinguish the study of genetics (a term that wasn’t coined until 1905) from eugenics. For example, in their recent book The Ethics of the New Eugenics MacKellar and Bechtel define eugenics as involving ‘strategies or decisions aimed at affecting, in a manner which is considered to be positive, the genetic heritage of a child, a community, or humanity in general’ (2016, p. 3). If we use this definition, many contemporary bioethicists support eugenics (e.g. Savulescu 2001; Brock 2005; Buchanan and Powell 2011; Gyngell and Selgelid 2016).
But there is an obvious reason authors often shy away from using the term ‘eugenics’. This is the association with forced sterilization programs in the US and Nazi Germany, as well as the Nazi program of euthanizing disabled people, and the mass murder and attempted genocide of Jews and Roma during WW2. Eugenics has always had advocates who rejected a role for the state in guiding procreative choices, advocates who thought the state should play a limited role in influencing parental choice by providing information to prospective parents or subsidies for genetic interventions, and advocates who thought the state should play a significant role, including the use of extensive compulsion. While contemporary bioethicists disagree about whether the state should play a role in helping parents discharge their procreative obligations, none think the state should engage in the mass sterilization or murder of their own citizens. In other words, the rejection of Nazi-style eugenics programs is unanimous. Nevertheless, ‘eugenics’ has increasingly become associated in the public mind with its worst abuses.
To call a person a ‘eugenicist’ or deem a practice ‘eugenics’ is often accepted as a substitute for an argument. However, all human societies engage in a variety of practices that are both widely accepted and plainly eugenic. In the West, most pregnant women test for disorders such as Down syndrome, Huntington’s disease, and cystic fibrosis. Many people choose to terminate pregnancies that are likely to result in a genetic disorder or disability. Incest is forbidden in most cultures and cousin marriage is illegal in many nations for transparently eugenic reasons: the children that result are more likely to suffer from a disorder or disability. Perhaps the most straightforwardly eugenic policy is the provision of genetic counselling among at-risk ethnic groups to prevent the birth of, for example, children with Tay-Sachs, sickle cell disease and thalassemia.
The important conclusion is this: everyone who considers pre-natal testing justifiable, or who thinks women should be free to weigh genetic information in the selection of a spouse or a sperm donor is a eugenicist.
The difference between those embracing and those criticizing the term is merely expressed in where we draw a boundary between the kinds of eugenic practices we allow. Indeed, it is hard to find people who don’t endorse any form of eugenics for the same reason it is hard to find people who don’t think mothers should be careful about what they consume and how they behave when they are pregnant. Nearly everyone agrees that pregnant women should avoid foods containing mercury during pregnancy (since mercury impairs brain development), and there are public health campaigns to discourage women from smoking, drinking alcohol to excess or getting x-rays because these may cause cognitive or physical disability in their children. The source of the disability, environmental versus genetic, is the only distinction here. Avoiding excessive alcohol while pregnant is morally analogous to selecting among a set of embryos in a way that minimizes the likelihood that a future child will have serious cognitive disabilities. Unless one comes to endorse the claim that all of the above practices are wrong, it is hard not to implicitly endorse some kind of eugenics.
Many authors think that whatever words we use, eugenics in some form is inevitable given recent advances in gene editing and embryo selection, and that changing the word doesn’t change the underlying debate (Agar 2019; Buchanan et al 2000; MacKellar and Bechtel 2016; Selgelid 2014). For example, Philip Kitcher has argued that ‘Once we have left the garden of genetic innocence, some form of eugenics is inescapable’ (p. 174). This is because, Kitcher thinks, the choice to use or not use genetic screening, contraception, or abortion predictably influences what kinds of people are born, and what kinds of traits they will have. As Kitcher understands the term (following Galton), eugenics is ‘a mixture of the study of heredity and some doctrines about the value of human lives’ (1997, p. 191). He suggests that even if a parent or policy is not attempting to alter the human gene pool, insofar as policies and parental choices predictably affect the genetic endowments of future people, and thus the composition of future populations, they constitute a form of eugenics. Likewise, the historian of eugenics, Daniel Kevles, argues that if policies that subsidize genetic counselling and contraception affect the gene pool, they are eugenic (or dysgenic) policies, even if this is not their intent (1985, p. 258). Although scholars tend to define their terms carefully, it is increasingly common in popular discourse to use ‘eugenics’ to designate only interventions that involve unjust coercion. As we’ve argued, we think this is misguided.
But if the term ‘eugenics’ is so incendiary, why use it at all? Why not use the euphemism ‘genetic enhancement’? Is the point to cause controversy and draw attention? Not necessarily. It’s important that the debate about eugenics continue unconstrained by requirements such as those that Wilson (2019) would impose. The silencing of reasoned defenses of eugenics threatens a dangerous neglect of the risk of repeating past errors by disassociating them from their historical misuse (Agar 2019; Anomaly 2021). Nevertheless, precisely because of the historical atrocities committed in the name of eugenics, some philosophers advocate using ‘genetic enhancement’ in its place (Wilkinson 2008; Camporesi 2014; Cavaliere 2018). Terms like ‘gene therapy’ and ‘genetic enhancement’ lack the discomforting associations of ‘eugenics’. In our opinion, this does not make genetic interventions any more or less dangerous. It just changes the words we use to describe them. The important point is not what words we use but instead the moral distinctions we make between different kinds of interventions. After all, Hitler imposed a grotesque involuntary 'euthanasia' program, but many people now think voluntary euthanasia is justifiable. Nicholas Agar (2019, p. 10) distinguishes between interventions that are morally wrong and interventions that are morally problematic: ‘All instances of an intervention properly identified as essentially morally wrong are morally wrong. However, a morally problematic intervention is problematic precisely because it comprises both morally bad and morally good interventions’. Slavery is essentially morally wrong—there are no cases of ‘morally good’ slavery. Eugenics is morally problematic in that it comprises good and bad practices. It is likely to be essentially so. There is unlikely to be a future in which people making choices about what kinds of people will exist run no risk of the errors of authoritarian eugenics. The use of the term ‘eugenics’ breeds caution, but it should not be misused as the replacement of a moral argument.